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This is how you choose the best microphones for streaming and video meetings

Good sound quality gives a better experience for everyone who’s listening

Text:
Daniel Haaf

Published:
16 December 2020

Whether you are considering starting a podcast, streaming on Twitch, or just want to sound good in video conferences, a good microphone is important. Here we’ll give you some tips on the most important things you need to know before buying a new microphone. 

Expect to pay around XXX to XXX for a USB microphone. In addition, you might need to add some money for a good microphone arm or stand, and a pop shield if it’s not included. 

XLR microphones cost from about a hundred pounds and you can get a good sound card for about the same cost. XLR microphones don’t normally have an associated stand, so expect an additional cost for a good microphone arm and pop shield.

Recommended popular microphones with USB-connection

Recommended popular microphones with XLR-connection

The most important things to know before you choose a microphone 

USB-microphone or XLR-microphone with sound card 

There are mainly two kinds of microphone models. Either the microphone is connected via USB or XLR. 

What distinguishes USB microphones from XLR microphones is that they come with everything you need directly in the microphone. You can unpack, plug it into your computer and start using it in seconds. Many USB microphones have settings for how sensitive the microphone should be and headphone volume on the front or on the side.

Microphones that are connected via XLR cable, on the other hand, are a little trickier. The sound card that is built into USB microphones is a separate entity with XLR microphones. They have one or more XLR ports and all settings are on the sound card instead of on the microphone. Since you must have two gadgets instead of just one, it’s often a little more expensive to get an XLR microphone than a USB model.

However, the extra cost is usually made up for by the higher sound quality. XLR microphones are more versatile and a good microphone doesn’t need to be replaced for many years.

The advantages with USB microphones

  • Good sound quality at a relatively low cost
  • Easy to use together with a computer or tablet
  • You don’t need to look for a microphone and a matching sound card

The advantages with XLR-microphones

  • Much higher sound quality for professional use 
  • You can select the audio interface with several XLR inputs 
  • You can select very long XLR cables if needed
Photo: Александр Макаров, Adobe Stock

This is a sound card

A sound card, also called a sound interface, is a device that sits between your XLR microphone and your computer. It ensures that the analogue signal from the microphone is converted to digital so that the computer can receive it. It’s also the sound card that ensures that the microphone receives the right amount of power, which is called phantom power.

Where USB microphones have all the settings on the microphone, XLR microphones have none at all. Instead, this is on the sound card. Here you’ll find, among other things, microphone sensitivity controls (called gain), and volume controls for headphones so that you can listen to yourself.

There are many benefits of a separate sound card for your XLR microphone. The sound quality is noticeably better, you can choose a sound card for several simultaneous microphones and many models have a headphone amplifier if you need it. Another advantage is that XLR cables can be tens of meters without problems, unlike USB cables which are rarely longer than a few meters.

If you are recording both a song and an instrument, a separate sound card with two or more XLR inputs is important. It’s also good when you are several people recording a podcast from the same place.

Microphone on a stand or microphone arm 

It’s important to bear in mind when choosing a microphone arm to check that it fits on the table where you are sitting. Some models are clamped between the bottom and top of the table top, others are placed on the floor as a stand. If you are considering a table stand, it can take up a lot of space depending on how heavy a microphone it’s meant to be able to handle.

Popular microphone arms 

Alignable microphone or omnidirectional 

A big challenge is that many microphones pick up all the sound from the surroundings. The risk is that everything from people in the background to cars whizzing by on the street and the film being played on the other side of the wall are recorded when you do your podcast. It is not as big a problem for video conferencing or streaming where the sound quality is not as critical. 

To reduce the risk of recording unwanted sounds, select a microphone that has a cardioid-type recording pattern. This means that it only picks up sound waves from in front of the microphone. If you are recording several people in the room and don’t want to use several microphones, you should look for omnidirectional models.

With USB microphones, you set gain and volume directly on the microphone Photo: IM_VISUALS, Adobe Stock

Microphone settings

If you are planning to get a USB microphone, it’s important that it has the correct settings on the microphone from the beginning. The reason is that it’s easier to fine-tune levels directly on the unit instead of having to change the recording app you use.

Important settings to bear in mind:

  • Volume level for headphones: USB microphones with headphone input can be used to both listen to your own voice and to play audio from your computer. With a volume control, you can quickly change the level without first finding the computer's settings.
  • The Microphone’s sensitivity level: With a microphone sensitivity control, you can easily adjust the amount of surrounding noise to be recorded. A high level allows you to hear more noise, but you can talk further away from the microphone. 
  • Mute-button: Mutes and activates the microphone, an important control when you want to be able to quickly interrupt the recording, for example during a video meeting when something happens in the background or you have to leave for a while.

Compatibility and recording software

Most microphones and sound cards don’t require special manufacturer’s drivers. Normally, you just plug them into your computer and let the operating system handle the installation automatically. It usually doesn’t take more than a minute.

However, what you may need to install is a program to record and edit audio. Here are some popular programs that are free for Windows and macOS:

If you want to try more professional software that you pay for, Adobe Audition and Apple Logic Pro X are two options.

A tip: Don’t be afraid to try multiple microphones 

Not all microphones work optimally with all voices. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you are not completely satisfied with the first microphone you buy. Some models give a warmer sound while others highlight the midrange a little extra. What suits your voice depends entirely on how you sound. Try some microphones and see which one you think sounds best.

Here are the features you need to keep an eye on

  • Sampling rate: Many times a second, a snapshot of the sound is taken. It’s called a sound sample, and is analysed when the sound is converted from an analogue to digital signal. The more sound samples, the more accurate the analysis and the better the sound quality. The sampling rate indicates the number of samples taken per second (for example 96kHz= 96 000 samples per second.) It’s common for the microphone or soundcard to be capable of either 96 kHz or 192 kHz.
  • Bit depth: The bit depth indicates how many steps are available to describe the sound. The more steps, the larger the so-called dynamic range, which is the difference between the weakest and strongest sound you can record with the microphone. It’s common to record audio in either 16 or 24 bit. 
  • Frequency range: Indicates how large a frequency range the microphone can handle when recording sound waves from, for example, your voice or an instrument. A microphone having a frequency range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz means that the microphone can correctly convert sound waves within these frequencies into an electrical signal which is sent to the A/D converter.
  • Polar pattern: All microphones have a so-called recording area for sound. What you need depends on how you use the microphone. Common variants are omnidirectional, cardioid, super cardioid and shotgun. Cardioid is the best option for many because it mainly picks up sound in front of the microphone and a little from the sides, but not behind. 
  • Impedance: XLR microphones have an impedance that indicates the microphone’s resistance. A high impedance means that the microphone requires more power to operate. The impedance is given in ohms (Ω) and is important to know because you must have a sound card that can supply enough power for the XLR microphone to work. 
  • Dynamic range (SPL): The dynamic range is given in decibels (dB) and indicates the lowest to maximum sound pressure that the microphone can handle. At the bottom of the scale, the signal must be higher than the noise created by the microphone, and at the top of the scale, the signal must be clean and not distorted. The dynamic range depends to some extent on the sound card you have for the XLR microphone. 
  • SNR or S / N: Signal-to-noise ratio, or SNR for short, indicates the relationship between relevant audio data and noise. The higher the SNR, the less noise you experience from the microphone. A good SNR value is 90 dBA and you should find a microphone that stays above 80 dBA for good sound quality. 
  • Phantom power: XLR microphones that need so-called phantom power must be connected to a sound card that can send 48 volts to the microphone. In some cases, you also need a pre-amp when the phantom power isn’t enough, for example with the Shure SMB7. Phantom power is not required for USB microphones.

This article is written by Prisjakt’s editorial staff. No one else has influenced the content of it. There are no paid links or other types of advertising collaborations. Daniel Haaf can be reached at [email protected]